Disciplining Workers – Can I make my employees pay for their carelessness?

Q. I just discovered that an employee recorded transactions in a careless way that is against our company’s explicit rules. When I demanded that he go back and do the work properly on his own time, he asserted that I have no right to ask him to work without pay.

A. It’s easy to understand your frustration. The manager has the right to expect that his workers will be careful and assiduous. Jewish law states that employees have a responsibility to work to the best of their ability. (1) And the employer has every right to dismiss a worker who under-performs after being given a reasonable opportunity to meet company standards. (2)

However, it’s a long way from your right to let this worker go to having the right to compel him to work without pay.

It’s true that a worker who causes actual damage to your firm can be compelled to either repair the damage or pay for it, just as a non-worker can. In Jewish law, workers also have some additional responsibility that does not apply to an outside individual, especially when they are entrusted with company property or are given authority to represent the firm. (3) But despite this technical liability, Jewish law discourages imposing sanctions on workers due to normal carelessness. (4)

Furthermore, doing careless paperwork is not the same as causing damage. You’re no worse off than if the work hadn’t been done at all. In fact, given that fact that the worker was at the workplace busy with his tasks, you can’t even dock his pay.

It may seem unfair to ask you to pay for work that was never done, but remember that an employee is not like a contractor. A contractor is hired to get the job done; an employee is hired to carry out orders to the best of his ability. It’s just not fair to the worker to impose such a heavy responsibility on him.

An additional problem with sanctions is that very often they are a way to make the worker pay for mistakes that are really due to the shortcomings of management. Where were you, the manager, all those months that these transactions were improperly recorded? A worker is not just a machine that you can wind up and let go; the employee needs appropriate guidance, encouragement and supervision.

If the nature of your work is such that it is critical to be able to create monetary sanctions for worker carelessness, then you need to carefully craft a compensation system that will achieve this goal. For example, you can compensate workers with a base salary and a bonus, where it is understood that the bonus is paid only for exemplary work, and egregious errors will lead to deductions. But the average salaried worker should not have to pay out of his own pocket, or his own private hours, for work of inferior quality as long as he was present at work and busy with his assigned tasks.

The Talmud has the following advice: “Someone who has inherited a lot of money and wants to lose them…should hire workers without supervising them.” In other words, this is a certain way to lose money. The employer has to acknowledge his own share of responsibility for losses caused by a worker who worked without adequate oversight. (5)

(1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 337:20.
(2) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 306:8.
(3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 73b and commentaries. Pitchei Choshen Pikadon 12:14-15.
(4) Bava Metzia 83a.
(5) Bava Metzia 29b.